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Nonstick Woks (And Why Not to Buy One)

By trk

Last Updated: February 13, 2024

If you like to cook Asian food, then a wok is a great pan to have in your kitchen. Most people think of a wok as a stir-fry pan, but you can use woks for many things. In fact, many people use their wok as an all-purpose pan because it's great for so many things. 

Woks come in many materials, including carbon steel, cast iron, and clad stainless steel. You can even find woks with nonstick coatings--but don't buy a nonstick wok, because it's a really bad idea. 

Keep reading to find out why.

What Is a Wok?

Yosukata Pre-Seasoned Round-Bottomed Wok

A wok is a bowl-shaped pan with high, sloped sides. The bottom can be rounded, for use with a wok burner or wok ring, or flat, for use on a standard range. It can have one long handle and a short handle or two short handles. Woks originated in China and are still associated with Chinese cooking. 

The shape of the pan allows for the heat to concentrate in the bottom of the pan, which is ideal for stir frying: it allows you to move food from the hot bottom to the cooler sides to control cooking very efficiently.

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What Do You Use a Wok For?

Helen's Asian Kitchen Wok with stir fry

Most people think of stir frying when they think of woks. Stir frying is a wok's main use, but it is a very versatile pan. You can use it for searing, steaming, and deep frying, and some cooks use their woks for soups and stews, too.

Not all woks come with lids, so if you want to use your wok for steaming or braising (stews), be sure to get one with a lid, or buy a lid separately. Domed lids are useful because you can fit a bamboo steamer under them. The shape of a wok is well suited to steaming because the water sits well below the steamer itself, ensuring your food won't sit in the water.

The closest Western style pan to the wok is probably the chef's pan or essential pan, which looks like this:

All Clad Copper Core Chef Pan

However, woks are usually larger than chef's pans, and they have a smaller flat bottom surface. The standard wok size is 14 inches across the top, while most chef's pans are 12 inches. The large size of a wok adds versatility, which makes it great to cook in whether you're cooking for several people or just for yourself. 

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Why a Nonstick Wok Is a Bad Idea

As appealing as nonstick cookware is for many people, it's not a good choice, and for a wok it's an especially awful choice for several reasons.

Nonstick Coatings Can't Handle High Heat

The main reason a nonstick wok is a bad idea is that nonstick coatings are not meant for use with high heat--and stir frying is a fast cooking method that works by blasting small pieces of food with intense heat. If you're not planning on using high heat to stir fry, you probably don't need a wok (you can use a skillet).

There are two types of nonstick coatings: PTFE (brand name Teflon®, but there are hundreds of PTFE brands on the market now), and ceramic (e.g., Green Pan and Caraway), and neither should be used with high heat. High heat destroys nonstick coatings. 

Neither type of nonstick can handle high heat and should not be used for any high heat cooking.

Both PTFE (Teflon) and ceramic nonstick are damaged by high heat, so because stir frying is a high heat cooking method, a nonstick wok is a really bad idea.

Nonstick Coatings May Not Be Safe to Cook On (Both Kinds)

PTFE is unsafe at high temperatures. It begins to break down around 390F and can release toxic fumes above 500F, so it absolutely can not be used at high heat. These fumes cause flu-like symptoms in humans and are lethal to birds.

You may be surprised to know that it only takes a few minutes on a gas or induction stove for an empty pan to reach 500F, which is probably a lot faster than most people think. And though electric stoves heat more slowly, they're still faster than you'd expect them to be. Never leave an empty nonstick pan unattended if the heat is on. 

Ceramic nonstick doesn't break down from high heat, but does lose its nonstick properties, and there is some evidence that ceramic nonstick coatings release titanium dioxide nanoparticles under certain conditions. Nanoparticles are a fairly new technology, so we don't yet know how safe (or unsafe) these particles are, and it's not known how (or if) they migrate from cookware into our food. But there is some evidence that they do get into your food, so if you want to err on the side of caution, avoid ceramic nonstick cookware. 

Never leave an empty nonstick pan unattended if the heat is on. Even a low or medium setting can cause a pan to reach temperatures of 500F or more in just a few minutes.

Nonstick Coatings Won't Last

Even if you don't use high heat on nonstick pans and take meticulous care of them, they don't last. On average, a nonstick skillet has a life span of 1-5 years, and it is often on the lower end of that estimate. Five years may sound like a long time, but when you compare to clad stainless steel, carbon steel and cast iron, all of which will last for decades, you can see that it isn't.

Even though clad stainless steel cookware is more expensive, it's cheaper in the long run because it lasts so much longer than nonstick: decades, as opposed to a few years. Your cost-per-year-of-use is actually lower than with nonstick because you only have to buy once. 

With cast iron and carbon steel, the cost-per-year-of-use is even less because it's inexpensive and lasts for decades. The only downside is that you have to season these materials, which some people don't want to do (and understandably so: it can take a few tries to get the hang of it, which can be frustrating). However, well-seasoned cast iron and carbon steel are almost as nonstick as actual nonstick cookware, so it's a trade off worth making if you want nonstick pans without the problems. 

Even though most nonstick cookware is inexpensive, you get the best bang for your buck from clad stainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel.

No matter which type of nonstick cookware you buy or how much you spend, it's probably only going to last 1-5 years.

Nonstick Coatings Are Terrible for the Environment

Finally, PTFE nonstick cookware is absolutely terrible for the environment. Many people think "PFOA-free" means a nonstick pan is safe and non-toxic, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's true that makers don't use PFOA anymore because it's been outlawed, but it's been replaced with a similar chemical, in most cases Gen-X. There are already lawsuits pending from people who live downstream from GenX manufacturers, just as there were for PFOA. So don't let a "PFOA-free" label fool you into thinking a nonstick pan is a clean choice. It's not.

All of the chemicals in the PFAS family are considered "forever chemicals." This includes PFOA, PTFE (Teflon), GenX,and other ones used in industries other than cookware. They're called forever chemicals because they don't break down naturally in the environment or in our bodies. Once they're there, they're there for a very long time (possibly forever). PFAS chemicals have been associated with several serious health conditions, including some cancers. PFOA and other PFAS chemicals have been detected in the bloodstreams of more than 99% of Americans according to this article from the Environmental Working Group.

This ridiculously high percentage is possible because there are no regulations about dumping these chemicals into the ground and water supplies. Because these chemicals were in common use before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1971, they were "grandfathered" in, which means they were assumed safe and therefore did not need to be regulated. This is still true today, so manufacturers of nonstick cookware (and several other industries too) are free to dump their waste into the water supply.

This is starting to change, and there may soon be regulations on PFAS chemicals, but it hasn't yet (which is why GenX is found in the bodies of people who live downstream from these chemical plants). Local municipalities are taking some of the responsibility and are beginning to test for and regulate them, but for the most part, forever chemicals are still unregulated. Removing them from the water supply is a big, expensive process, and nobody wants to take on that responsibility. (This is why we recommend a reverse osmosis water filter for your drinking water.)

So even if you use a PTFE nonstick pan safely and carefully, you are contributing to a serious global pollution problem just by buying one of these pans. 

Another environmental issue is that because nonstick pans have such a limited life span, there are millions upon millions of discarded nonstick pans, both PTFE and ceramic, clogging up the country's landfills.

Some nonstick cookware is recyclable, but few curbside recycling programs will take it, so you have to find a program that deals specifically with nonstick pans. Since this can be hard to do, the majority of discarded nonstick pans end up in landfills.

 This article can tell you more about recycling nonstick cookware.

If you buy PTFE nonstick cookware, you are contributing to an industry that pollutes the planet with forever chemicals. This is true even if a pan is labeled "PFOA free."

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What Is the Best Wok Material?

Carbon Steel Wok

Carbon steel wok (flat bottomed).

We hope we've convinced you that a nonstick wok is a bad idea: even if you buy a wok for purposes other than stir frying (though we don't know why you would), nonstick cookware has a short life span and is terrible for the environment. In general, nonstick cookware is not a smart financial choice. 

Nonstick cooking surfaces also aren't great for getting your foods nicely browned or giving them a nice crust (this is called wok hei when using a wok, and it's worth knowing about). This is because nonstick cooking surfaces are so slippery, food particles slide off of them rather than sticking and browning. 

Carbon steel is the traditional wok material and is generally considered best for a wok. It holds heat well, it's durable, and it's lighter than cast iron, which is important in a pan as large as a wok. Most carbon steel woks are inexpensive, too, and will last for decades, making them a much better financial choice than nonstick.

You can buy cast iron woks and clad stainless steel woks, too. Cast iron woks are great for stir frying, but can be very heavy: this 14 inch Lodge wok weighs almost 12 pounds, while the carbon steel wok shown above weighs less than 4 pounds. 

Cooks Standard Stainless Steel Wok with Lid

Clad stainless woks are a good choice, but good quality ones can be expensive.

Clad stainless steel is a decent choice for a wok, but there are pros and cons. Pros are that many clad stainless woks come with lids, which isn't as true for carbon steel (though they are out there). Also, prices have come down, so you can find clad stainless woks for about the same price as carbon steel--though in general, clad stainless at these prices can be poor quality, so be careful in your purchase. And, clad stainless steel is lighter than carbon steel, so it's easier to handle. Cons are that for some reason, clad stainless steel woks tend to be smaller than the standard size of 14 inches diameter, so if you want a standard sized wok, pay attention to size if you're looking at stainless steel. (We talk more about wok size in the next section.) This clad stainless wok is a great price and comes with a lid and a wok spatula, but the quality is so-so, and it's only 13 inches wide. Brand name stainless woks tend to be very expensive, such as this All-Clad Copper Core wok, which is almost $300 (but it is a full sized 14-inch wok). 

click to see our favorite carbon steel wok on amazon

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FAQs About Nonstick Woks

Here are some common questions about nonstick woks.

How Long Will a Nonstick Wok Last?

How long a nonstick coating will last depends on how it's used and how much it's used. As with other nonstick cookware, you have to avoid high heat, metal utensils, and aerosol cooking spray to increase the life of the nonstick coating. Even if you take all these precautions, a nonstick wok will last from 1-5 years (the same as any other nonstick pan).

Are Nonstick Woks Safe to Use?

Nonstick woks are safe if you don't use high heat. Heat over 500F will cause PTFE to break down and release dangerous fumes that can cause flu-like symptoms in people and kill birds. If you own a pet bird, you shouldn't use PTFE nonstick cookware. And never heat an empty pan without supervision: an empty pan can reach temps over 500F in just a few minutes.

Even if you follow all the safety precautions for a PTFE nonstick wok, the PTFE cookware industry is terrible for the environment, from manufacturing PTFE to the millions of used pans that end up in landfills. So you may not be in danger from using your nonstick wok, but buying any PTFE product contributes to an industry that is contaminating the planet.

Is Hexclad a Good Wok Material?

Hexclad 14 Wok w:Lid

Hexclad contains PTFE, so it is not a good choice for a wok.

No--Hexclad contains PTFE, so it's a terrible choice for a wok. High heat is just as bad for Hexclad pans as it is for other nonstick pans, so a Hexclad wok is a bad idea.

Do You Have to Season a Nonstick Wok?

You see a lot of advice these days that your nonstick pans need to be "seasoned." Even many nonstick makers advise seasoning on their websites. Then they go on to describe the process, which goes something like this: Spread a small amount of oil in the pan, then heat it to medium heat or put it in a 350F oven for a few minutes." 

This isn't really seasoning such as what you'd do to cast iron or carbon steel. The real seasoning process actually causes oil to react with the cast iron or carbon steel to create a different substance, a polymer that is similar to PTFE in molecular structure, but not unsafe. This isn't what happens when you spread oil on a nonstick surface and heat it moderately. All this does is create a layer of oil that can help to make a pan more slippery (as oil does to any surface).

So should you "season" a nonstick wok? It might create a slicker surface, but it's not necessary, and it won't increase the lifespan of the nonstick or make it safer.

Can You Use a Nonstick Wok for Deep Frying?

Woks are a great pot for deep frying because you can fry a lot of food in less oil than you'd use in a standard pot. Even a nonstick wok is good for deep frying, as long as you keep the temperature below 500F. In fact, if you're deep frying at 350-375F, it's safer than using the wok for a high heat stir fry; the large volume of oil will prevent the wok from getting dangerously hot, which is not the case while stir frying.

Is There Any Reason to Buy a Nonstick Wok?

No. Woks are designed to be used on high heat, and high heat destroys nonstick coatings, both PTFE and ceramic. Carbon steel is the ideal material for woks because it holds heat, is light enough to handle fairly easily, inexpensive, will last for decades, and has a nonstick surface when seasoned. There is no reason to get a nonstick wok, which is more expensive than carbon steel and won't last more than a few years. And you can't use it with high heat, which makes "nonstick wok" an oxymoron.

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Final Thoughts About Nonstick Woks (And Why Not to Buy One)

Wok with stir fry and fire

Our final thought on nonstick woks: don't buy one: the image above shows why. Woks are made primarily for stir frying, and stir frying is done at high heat. Both PTFE and ceramic nonstick coatings are ruined by high heat. So it makes no sense to buy a nonstick wok.

A nonstick coating is the opposite of what to look for in a wok. 

Instead, go with carbon steel, which is the ideal material for a wok, and is affordable.

Thanks for reading!

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About the Author

The Rational Kitchen (TRK) is a collaborative effort, but the founder, editor, and writer of most of our articles is Melanie Johnson, an avid cook, kitchenware expert, and technical communications specialist for more than 20 years. Her love of cooking and the frustrating lack of good information about kitchen products led her to create The Rational Kitchen. TRK's mission is to help people make the best decisions they can when buying kitchen gear. 

When not working on product reviews, Melanie enjoys reading, playing with her dog Ruby, vintage video games, and spending time outdoors and with her family.

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